On 7 August, comedian John Oliver spoke on his show Last Week Tonight about how “the newspaper industry today is in big trouble”. His passionate defence of the media as an important political watchdog really hit home. But why are traditional media outlets dying out? Where are we heading now? And where should we be heading?
Are newspapers dying out?
While Oliver was talking about the situation in the United States, the same is true in the UK. The British newspaper industry has been in decline for years. Experienced journalists are losing their jobs, and newspapers are closing. The Independent was one of the most recent high-profile closures. One part of this is the shift towards online media.
Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released a report earlier this year which found that:
- Since 2012, the number of UK journalists working for newspapers has fallen from 56% to 44%. The proportion working online has gone up from 26% to 52%.
- 20% of journalists earn less than £19,200 a year, even though at least 98% have a bachelor’s degree.
- Most journalists think the time they have to research stories has fallen, and that “profit-making pressures, PR activity, and advertising considerations” have all increased.
The Harvard Political Review has revealed that large US media outlets have “explicitly told their reporters to write shorter stories” – reducing the capacity for in-depth investigations.
National Union of Journalists (NUJ) national organiser Laura Davison said in March 2016 that “the pay and conditions on the digital side are worse than on the print side”, and that the shift towards digital media would “surely have an effect on the quality of the product” as a result.
Why is the media setup changing so much?
A 2015 Media Reform Coalition report found that the UK media is dominated by just seven corporations, which own 71% of the entire media establishment between them. We have regularly outlined examples of pro-corporate media bias here at The Canary.
Given that Brits consider their media the most right-wing and biased in Europe, media credibility is not exactly in a good place today. Instead of holding the powerful to account, outlets have focused on attacking the anti-war movement, smearing junior doctors, and portraying left-wing views as “deeply subversive”. They’ve also taken a serious disliking to current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Accused of becoming an anti-Corbyn “attackdog” in a recent report by the London School of Economics and Political Science, they’ve gone from criticising Corbyn for his bowing style to diverting attention away from an important anti-racism report.
Considering all this, the lack of media credibility is clearly a major factor pushing readers (especially those on the left) towards online sources. But the growth of the internet has also played a big part. After all, who’d buy a newspaper today when you can get up-to-date news online, from a massive variety of sources, for free?
The effect of the digital age on newspapers
US newspapers, says WGBH News, are still reliant on print sales for most of their revenues, even though advertisers are increasingly moving away from “taking a shot in the dark on expensive print ads” and focusing their efforts a lot more on online adverts.
In these difficult times, one option for papers has been to charge readers for digital subscriptions. But with today’s customers already paying for a number of digital services, few would pay for a news subscription too. While walling off ‘premium’ content may have worked for some big established names with a large support base, it hasn’t for smaller organisations (as the sharing culture of the digital age means that walled-off content just can’t compete with free content).
Powerful news moguls don’t want to lose their profits, obviously. Some media giants have got around this by using unpaid internships (which in turn make entry into journalism mostly the realm of youngsters from well-off families). Other wealthy companies make use of unpaid bloggers, even though they’re perfectly capable of paying their contributors. But one big way of ensuring profits stay up is to push writers towards the most popular and sensational content (which is the most lucrative) and away from public interest journalism (which is seen to be dry and unpopular in comparison). One newspaper owner quoted by John Oliver said, when speaking to employees:
You need to… help me by being a journalist that focuses on what our readers want and therefore generates more revenue…
When interrupted by a journalist who said “But what readers want are puppy dogs and, I mean, we also need to inform the community”, the mogul responded:
You’re giving me the classic, what I would call journalistic arrogance of deciding that puppies don’t count. Hopefully, we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq.
In short, important issues are being ignored because they’re not going to attract many readers. And unimportant issues are being blown out of all proportion because they’re likely to go viral.
Are we doomed to superficial news?
Puppy-driven news it is, then. And maybe a bit of Iraq, now and again. But mostly puppies.
Well, not entirely.
British (and global) media outlets are currently travelling on the establishment bandwagon (driven by their owners, in part) – both economically and politically. Capitalism and ‘representative’ democracy (the type where you vote every few years for different shades of grey) tend to be their natural starting points. And debate happens only within those limits.
But many people wanting a fairer and more democratic world are sick and tired of the status quo. And some have committed themselves to changing the scene – no matter how difficult the task. At The Canary, for example, a small group of independent writers (with no corporate backing) have devoted their time and effort to a project of rebalancing the media environment and amplifying the voices of oppressed people in Britain and around the world. We’ve never been rolling in money like our corporate-funded competitors (though many of their writers are not exactly well-off, in all fairness, despite the immense wealth of their owners). But our passionate commitment to changing the political, economic, and media status quo has driven us to continue.
We’ve had to work within an imperfect system, where articles need to do well so we can get the advertising revenue we need to continue. But one of our main goals is to reach as many people with our stories anyway, just like every other news organisation – hardly a surprise or inconsistent with our values.
At the same time, we’re also trying to create as progressive a model as possible under the circumstances. When setting up The Canary in 2015, the founders looked to create a model that would make sure everyone on the team would either win or lose together. The aim was always to make donations and membership our core income, and thus reduce our reliance on ad revenue. At the start, though, as an unknown quantity with no reader donations, we needed a model that could create income without external funding/investment or the pay-walling of content. And as the site grew, the whole team would benefit as a result. Everyone, from the Editor-in-Chief to the newest writer, is remunerated in the same way.
We knew the model was imperfect, but then the whole economic system we’re working within is also imperfect, to say the least. And we’re still only about 10 months into a very long journey. But the sooner we can deliver sustainable and predictable incomes for writers the better. And that’s where readers come in.
After an internal democratic vote of all Canary writers, we recently updated our model – to reflect the fact that we now have around 2,000 monthly subscribers. Yes, we still need articles to be as successful and punchy as possible (while not being misleading) so we can earn enough money to devote all our time to The Canary and bring non-corporate news to an even wider readership. But in our recent vote, we decided that the generous and important donations from our readers should be shared equally between writers according to the number of articles they produce rather than the hits they get. [We’ve all written important articles in the past which have had very few hits, but we did this in the knowledge that they’d generate little or no money. Now, we receive money for these articles too, thanks to our readers.] This is a revenue share model unseen in corporate media outlets, and just imagine how many independent and dedicated writers we could pay everything they’re worth if our revenues were scaled up to millions of pounds a year.
At The Canary, we avoid addressing those who slander or criticise us directly. But we defend our mission with a passion. While we obviously need money to survive, just like everyone else, this was never about the money. It was about radically changing the media landscape in Britain. And few news sites can claim to have achieved what we have in less than a year – reaching millions of people tired of the failures of an out-of-touch media establishment.
In simple but compelling language, we seek to make the important issues as accessible as possible to disillusioned and disenfranchised citizens. After all, we as writers are also disillusioned and disenfranchised within the current political and economic system. But we’ve been inspired to take action – building change from the ground up with a group of people with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, and without any corporate funding. And we want to inspire others into action, too.
Where do we need to go?
The alternative media isn’t going away anytime soon, but we can’t survive on our writers’ commitment alone. To do more in-depth investigations and public interest journalism, we need the support of our readers. For a truly independent and high-quality media, the public needs to join in, support it, and shape it.
Corporate media outlets are hurting our society by failing to expose and criticise all political attacks on freedom, equality, the environment, and democracy – and failing to expose and criticise those responsible for them. In the public interest, we must stop the corporate media misinforming our society. We must question the status quo and discuss the alternatives.
The more we take back control of the media, the more we take back control of our destinies – personally, politically, and economically. We might not need newspapers. But we do need journalism. Without it, the powerful wouldn’t be held to account, and they’d find it much easier to hold on to their power. And this would bring the slow march towards a truly democratic society to a grinding halt.
Challenging the status quo isn’t about creating left-wing propaganda or telling people how they should be thinking. It’s about uncovering the truth – currently sullied by corporate bias – and opening up the discussion about how to change the world for the better.
Traditional media outlets are really struggling today. And we all have a monumental opportunity to take advantage of this. Together, we can move away from a corporate-funded media and towards a crowdfunded media.
See John Oliver’s full segment on Last Night Tonight here.
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Also, there are many other new media organisations doing their best to deliver news, analysis, and opinion in a more independent and ethical way. Please support them, and add more that you like in the comments section:
Media Diversified, Novara Media, Corporate Watch, Common Space, Media Lens, Another Angry Voice, Bella Caledonia, Vox Political, Evolve Politics, Real Media, Red Pepper, Reel News, ROAR, STRIKE! magazine, The Bristol Cable, Manchester Mule, Salford Star.
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